HELENA - Amid partisan bickering over whether the Democratic-led Senate should confirm the appointment of Republican Mike Foster to the state Board of Regents, no one spoke against the Billings man during his public hearing Monday.
Foster, who was appointed to the board that oversees the Montana University System a year ago by former Gov. Judy Martz, faced opposition from Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer earlier this session because he was a registered lobbyist for four Montana hospitals.
While Foster resigned his lobbying post two weeks ago in deference to the governor's position, Schweitzer won't say what he now thinks of the appointment. Foster had served as Martz's chief policy adviser and as a GOP legislator.
"I respect the legislative branch," Schweitzer said when asked Monday if he supported Foster. "The Senate makes that decision, I don't."
'Equal standards' should apply
But Schweitzer's chief policy adviser, Hal Harper, agreed that the Senate should apply "equal standards" of partisanship when confirming all appointments. Sen. Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, pointed out during Foster's public hearing that Schweitzer has appointed both Democrats and Republicans to Cabinet posts.
Foster was before the Senate State Administration Committee on Monday. The committee is expected to vote on his confirmation Friday.
Foster and Republican student Regent Kala French both face an uphill battle for confirmation in the Senate, where Democrats hold a 27-23 majority. Senate Majority Leader Jon Ellingson, D-Missoula, has been saying that voters gave the Senate a mandate to put Democrats on the state Board of Regents when they voted Democrats and Schweitzer into office after more than a decade of Republican rule.
Foster said Monday that his top priorities include easing the transfer of credits between institutions within the Montana University System, and pushing workforce development at the state's two-year colleges, which is a move Schweitzer himself is backing.
Ellingson said Monday that he's most concerned about college affordability.
"I think we're heading in the wrong direction when we have tuition going up with no end in sight," Ellingson said. "I've got to sleep on this."
In favor of Foster
State Commissioner of Higher Education Sheila Stearns testified in favor of Foster, and said the Senate and governors get their chance to put their own people on the board through the normal process. Normally, one seat comes open on the seven-member board each year, and the sitting governor makes the appointment.
Schweitzer has already made one appointment - Bozeman attorney Stephen Barrett - to the board.
"My sense of the constitutional and statutory intent of the formation of the Board of Regents was that the seven-year terms were intended to make the board somewhat immune from the swift vagaries of gubernatorial elections," Stearns said.
She also said that in Foster's year on the board, "there seem to be no issues, political or otherwise, that would seem to warrant his removal from the board."
Foster, who is the regional director of advocacy for the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth Health System, had lobbied for St. Vincent Healthcare in Billings, St. James Hospital in Butte, Wheatland Memorial Hospital in Harlowton and Holy Rosary Hospital in Miles City.
French, the student regent appointed by Martz, had lobbied for the Montana Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Stores Association as well as the Montana University System before she resigned those positions.